Thomas Thwaites is a designer based in London, UK. Among his many bizarre projects – such as building a toaster from scratch, which ended up with a TED Talk gathering over one million views – his latest endeavour is what has intrigued us the most. Thwaites is attempting to become as close to a goat as he possibly can … by literally trying to become a goat.
Critic: So this is the most bizarre project we have heard of in a while. Can you give us a rundown of what the project is?
Thwaites: I tried to become a goat. Simple, really. Everyone gets pissed off with stresses and strains, and worries and regrets and all these human anxieties that we have to deal with. And I just thought, wouldn’t it be nice to take a holiday from all that? No more worrying about why you’re here, what you’re doing with your life. I thought “wouldn’t it be nice to become an animal?” It’s like this idea from childhood in a way – I can remember fantasising that if only I could be the cat and then I wouldn’t have to go to school and face all these horrible people.
It’s an interesting idea to explore as a more mature adult. So I wrote to this biomedical charity that does arts funding – the Welcome Trust – and they were interested in the idea. They were probably as curious to see what I would come up with as I was.
How much was put towards this goat idea?
It was quite a lot, something like ₤27,000 [approx NZ$65,000]. I guess I’m a fairly established designer now. I’ve been doing this project for about a year. You can’t really talk about trying to take on the perception of another creature without getting into the philosophy of mind and neuroscience. So there’s quite a lot to the project before actually just going to the Alps and living with goats.
So how did you start?
The first thing I should say is that I started out trying to become an elephant. I started looking into elephants, [but] I went to see a shaman – they are a sort of expert in human-animal relations – and she said you shouldn’t be an elephant, you should be a goat. And she was absolutely right, really. When she said that, it felt right to me. Goat! Yeah, that’s the level I’m on.
You are on the level of a goat?
Well yeah, her reasoning was that I could never be an elephant because I have no shared cultural or environmental history with an elephant. She said as you live in London and don’t live in the bush in South Africa, you should be an animal you have in London.
Human beings have always tried to take on this idea of being animals, or taking on the characteristics of animals. There are various cave paintings of humans with animal heads [and] even the earliest sculpture we’ve ever discovered made by human hands is a sculpture of a human figure with a lion’s head. It was dug up just before the Second World War by the Nazis. It sounds like something out of Indiana Jones, but it made me think, maybe this becoming an animal thing is justified. I started to think of this as seeing how modern technology could help us achieve this age-old human dream.
So you had prosthetics on your legs and arms, and I hear you attempted to get a stomach made too?
Obviously if I was going to become a goat, I needed to be able to eat grass and digest it. Mammals don’t let you produce the enzyme to digest cellulose, but goats are mammals too. The difference is they have this foregut – their rumen – which is before their stomach and it has a whole other community of bacteria and fungi which are specialised in breaking down cellulose – the main molecule which makes up the fibrous bits in plants. I went up to Aberystwyth where they have a research group actually making artificial rumens. I told them “I’m trying to be a goat” and they were all “oh that’s great, hahaha”.
I told them I was thinking of making a fermenter, or a bag, and then I would put some grass in it. I wanted to put a sample of the bacteria from the goat into my artificial fermenter. They said that’s how they did their research, for rumen biology. Then I said ok, I’m going to strap this thing to me, walk around, spit grass into it and then suck out the fermented product from another tube. They suddenly went very quiet and were like “no, you mustn’t do that”. Their argument was that they are discovering all sorts of weird bacteria and fungi in the rumen, I’d not just be ill but possibly giving myself some kind of virulent bacteria infection. Some people think Crohn’s Disease is caused by a bacteria infection in the gut, they said I was at risk of giving myself a serious long-term condition if I did that. So yeah, that nixed that idea.
I ended up having to spit grass into a bag and at the end of the day I’d pressure cook it to break down the cellulose. And then I ate that.
So you still ate the grass?
Well, yeah. It was way harder than I thought. I did chemical tests on myself for sugar and I was getting some sugar from it but it was such hard work. Being on four legs and getting sick, I had to eat human food too.
How long did you last?
Well I was at the goat farm for three days but in my original application to the Welcome Trust, I said I was going to cross the Alps. So after three days of learning from the goats and learning how crap I was at being a goat, I set off to cross the Alps. They are, um, much higher than I thought.
Haha! Well, yeah, they’re not hills.
Haha, no they are not! I’d never really walked in the Alps before. They just kept on going up and up and up. So I ended up on a glacier and thought “this is ridiculous”.
Where did you sleep?
I slept in the shed on the goat farm. But crossing the Alps, I slept in little rest stops. I didn’t sleep outside in the Alps cause I probably would have died. The doctor who made the prosthetics for me, he said when you’re asleep, you don’t know that you’re a goat, so you don’t know you’re not a goat, so he justified it as a philosophy of mind type thing.
I do appreciate how you’ve managed to wheedle your way out of certain parts of this.
Exactly! When you’re faced with a chance of catching hypothermia and at the end of a long day, sweating all day and then freezing cold … a chance of philosophically reasoning yourself out of having to sleep outside in a bush becomes very attractive.
How did the goats warm to you personally?
They were scared really at first. When we first arrived at the goat farm, I hadn’t told the goat herd owner [what we were going to do]. We were having to use Google Translate to communicate, so I hadn’t told him. They were doing that migration the day after I arrived, so I had to get up the next day and join the herd. As we were herded down the mountain, I realised just how crap a goat I would be. This stream of goats flow down these extremely steep mountains and I was there on my four legs, terrified of slipping cause I didn’t have any hands obviously to stop myself from falling or smashing myself into a rock.
Did you ever fall over?
Yeah, quite a few times. I would try and trot. But it was so easy to just fall.
Eventually when we got to the pasture and I was just eating with them … they gradually got to know me and I think I even made like a goat friend. Prior to going, I had talked to a goat behavioural psychologist – yes, they do exist – goats have this dominance hierarchy thing and have friends and enemies. I think I made a goat friend.
There was this moment where I found myself the highest goat in the goat herd and I looked up and everyone had stopped chewing on their grass and was just staring at me. And I was like “ok, this is weird”. I was in the middle of the herd. I felt something was going on. I think I may have committed some sort of goat faux pas, because I had read that you can show dominance by being physically higher. I think I’d inadvertently done a challenge and it was like “Oh God”. I started seeing these pointy horns and there was a bit of tension and movement going on. But luckily, I think my friend defused the situation. I dunno, I might be fantasising again.
There was that one moment though where I thought I’d have to go up on two legs and sort of wallop one with my hoof [but] I purposefully avoided the rutting season when they’d be sexually charged
What did you learn about humans, goats, and the differences?
Visiting the shaman was really interesting. When I was finally with the goats in the pasture, it was sort of meditative. I’d been to see a neuroscientist to try and switch off parts of my brain so I could be more like a goat. He used transcranial magnetic stimulation to switch off my speech centre.
It was temporary but it was an experience. He said they don’t think goats have an episodic memory like they think goats are very much in the moment, kind of stuck in time. And so it struck me that a lot of when people tell you to meditate, be in the moment, be present in the moment – I think being a goat is all a lot about being present, in the moment.
When you were on the Alps, was your brain all switched on?
Yeah. I had fantasies of making a sort of skull cap – like a portable transcranial magnetic stimulation machine. But the neuroscientist said I was basically 50 years too early. He said we could slightly disrupt areas of my brain, but he said about two-thirds of your brain is involved in language and episodic memory, so we’d have to switch off about two-thirds of my brain.
Do you think goats have a healthier sort of attitude?
Goats don’t have this tendency to be jumping around in time like humans do. In a way, goats are sort of Buddhists, I suppose. Haha don’t quote me on that. It’s absolute bullshit. They are very present with themselves. I guess they’re very in touch with their goaty selves.
We are all about wonderful technology and where human beings are going to go in the future, more efficient, faster, better, we’re going to go to Mars and stuff, which I love as well. But there also has to be a space for an alternative view of the future – maybe using technology for living a simpler life. We need to be remembering our animal selves as well.
Is it these kind of findings that you’re writing your book about?
I guess the whole project – yes, it is an impossible goal. Yes, I realise that now. To say I’m going to become a goat, it’s not actually possible to become a goat. So, the book – the shaman had one perspective of animals. And then the behavioural psychologists focusing on goats had another perspective. And then I dissected a goat with an anatomist. All these kind of ways of thinking about animals, and of course humans are animals … the book is a way of putting all that research down.
I guess this is more just that perhaps in the future we’ll need to use technology to be happier in the present. Just to be able to really love eating grass in a field, that’s quite, I don’t know, is that a good thing?
Do you think they were happy?
Well, there’s this quote by the philosopher John Stuart Mill: “It’s better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. It’s better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, says otherwise, it is only because they know their side of the question.” And I thought, well, maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s better to be a pig satisfied or a goat satisfied.
I mean I think a goat is satisfied with just eating delicious fresh green grass. Humans are constantly dissatisfied somehow and I was trying to get at the disconnect.
Have you thought about becoming a drunk goat as an easier way of achieving the same lack of awareness?
Yeah I did ask that. Would being a goat be like just being really drunk, impulsive? The goat psychologists just laughed at me. They don’t assume that animals have the human experience – like if I ask if goats are happy? That just doesn’t really apply. We can’t know what they’re experiencing. They are trying to learn what the hell is going on in an animal’s mind.
What made other researchers you spoke to choose goats over elephants, for example?
Goats are cognitively interesting and they’re neophilic, which means they’re curious about new things. When they’re presented with some new apparatus, they’ll investigate it. They are naturally inclined to participate in your experiment. They’re basically easier to study. They’re fun.
Did you learn any goat games?
Well, it’s a game sometimes being the highest on the mountain. Trying to maintain your place on the hill, in the herd.
I told people I needed to make these prosthetics so that I could gallop like a goat and spring over the mountains. But the people who make limbs for amputees … they said I don’t think you know how much difficulty [and] how much pain you’re going to have when you try and take your weight and put it through parts of your body which aren’t evolved to do that.
Surely they thought you were a nutter?
Well, I researched the clinic. I found a guy whose undergrad was in zoology and I guess the clinician took the bait. I still consider the whole thing a prototype. It’s such a good dream to be able to gallop through the hills and eat grass.
So one day it’s going to happen?
Yeah, one day! I just need to be able to get to the ultimate prosthetics. We’ve already made a better version of the back legs. I’m going back to the workshop on better front legs. I’ll get there somehow.
We’ve had a few random questions from students here. How did you manage to go to the toilet with your goat suit on?
Well, I had a zip. I’m aware walking around with my willie out would just be a bit … you know. I really didn’t want to emphasise any of the sexual aspects [of goat life] … I was quite keen to not emphasise that in the project. Not telling the goatherd that I planned on sharing a barn with his goats … first try, I guessed it was better to keep things tucked away.
How loud can you bleat?
Oh God. [head online to hear!]
Thanks so much for talking to us. I could talk to you for hours about your other projects.
Haha yes, well, there’s the toaster too! I don’t know, maybe it’s my New Zealand parentage. She’ll be right, give it a go combined with the English eccentricity which may have had a role in doing these stupid things. I thought I’d mention that my dad did go to Otago University. I think he studied economics but didn’t shine as a student!
It’s a small world!